Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Mozart
Concert aria – Ch’io mi scordi di te ... Non temer, amato bene, K505
Sibelius
Luonnotar, Op.70
Höstkväll, Op.38/1
Four Legends, Op.22 (Lemminkäinen Suite)

Imogen Cooper (piano)
Soile Isokoski (soprano)

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
This was a well-planned programme and the predominance of Sibelius was apt for a concert which marked Finnish Independence Day.
This was also a concert in the “Classic International” series, featuring “the world’s greatest orchestras at the world’s greatest concert hall,” according to the blurb. It’s arguable that neither the Finnish Radio Symphony nor the Royal Festival Hall falls into these respective categories. However, a notable feature of the playing throughout was a sense of commitment and enthusiasm, even if the RFH’s clinical acoustic revealed some thinness of tone.
Imogen Cooper was the commendable soloist in the Beethoven, which began the concert. Saraste set a brisk pace for the opening ’Allegro con brio’ – a distinctly ’classical’ approach to the concerto, one which revealed Beethoven’s debt to Mozart and Haydn, rather than offering a foretaste of Beethoven the budding Romantic. Cooper’s finely chiselled playing was elegance itself, with responsive interplay with the orchestra and rapid passagework dispatched with ease. If there was something slightly clipped and cool about her playing, especially in the first movement, then this was in keeping with the overall interpretation. She elected to play the third and longest of Beethoven’s first-movement cadenzas, which always sounds rather out of place, stylistically, as it was written many years after the concerto, and features some excursions into remote keys and a degree of virtuosity which are hallmarks of middle-to-late period Beethoven. Cooper rose to its challenge effortlessly.
There was a lyrical response to the tender melodic writing of the slow movement, although the accompaniment, in places, could have been more hushed and rapt. Admirable woodwind playing was to be heard, but one felt the need for a less unyielding response. The final rondo was launched with vigour and this was indeed a joyous traversal of this sparkling music, with an appropriate abandon in the final tutti.
Imogen Cooper is a fine artist, and one always senses that her artistry is at the service of the music. She was joined, and complemented in integrity, by the remarkable Soile Isokoski for a quite lovely performance of the Mozart. This is, in effect, an operatic scena, a lover’s devotion; the music would not be out of place in Così fan tutte, with all the lyrical charm that this comparison would suggest. Excellent diction and a real sense of character distinguished the varied mood of the agitated recitative. The piano’s (delayed) first entry was magical, and the dialogue between voice and instrument was poetic. How Mozart makes the piano sing, and Cooper’s playing was peerless.
Sterner fare in Sibelius’s Luonnotar, described as a ’tone poem’ for soprano and orchestra. This was first performed at, of all places, Gloucester Cathedral as part of the 1913 Three Choirs Festival. One wonders what effect this strange, unearthly music had on audiences more accustomed to the strains of Elgar and Parry. The setting is of a text from the Finnish national epic “Kalevala”, so beloved by Sibelius and from which he drew so much inspiration. It tells of the creation of Heaven by means of the shattering of a mystic bird’s egg. However fantastical that may sound, Sibelius’s response to the text is gripping in its depiction of elemental forces. The vocal line is cruelly demanding, but holds no terrors for Isokoski who conveyed expression and power effortlessly – the cries of “Ei, ei”, reaching up to a high C-flat were both poignant and passionate.
Saraste and the orchestra provided responsive accompaniment. A pity, though, that only one of the two harps Sibelius requests was provided. Sibelius’s songs are still comparative rarities in performance – even more so in their orchestral clothing, of which Höstkväll is a striking example. Again, Sibelius responds to the depiction of nature in the text by the Swedish poet Viktor Rydberg. The gradual darkness of an autumn evening is described in muted and sombre orchestral colours, but builds to an intense climax over a sustained tremolo on one note – foreshadowing Berg’s use of such a device in Wozzeck. This was a chilling performance. One can only hope that Isokoski will perform more of this neglected area of Sibelius’s output.
In later life, Sibelius observed that whilst he had composed seven numbered symphonies, his works in that form actually numbered nine. He counted the early Kullervo (which he withdrew after its first performance) and the Four Legends alongside them. Saraste preferred a more pictorial approach, highlighting moments of orchestral colour, rather than focussing on symphonic development. The tempo for the main body of the first of the legends – “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island” – was too fast for themes and detail to register. However, the orchestra responded with collective virtuosity, and the woodwind was especially articulate even if, in the circumstances, much of their music sounded rushed, and the touching ’bird-call’ phrases towards the end lacked expression.
Saraste reversed Sibelius’s preferred order for the middle two movements, placing the famous “The Swan of Tuonela” third. In the gloomy “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela” (the ’hell’ of Finnish mythology), the dark brooding of the music was captured very effectively, and some forceful brass playing was properly arresting. Following this with ’The Swan’ provided suitable contrast and repose. The cor anglais solo was expressively played and would have been more effortless had the accompaniment been delivered with greater restraint. But the noble unison string melody towards the end was suitably sad and benefited from not being emoted over.
Given Saraste’s quick tempi in the first Legends, it was something of a surprise to find him taking a more measured view of “Lemminkäinen’s Return”. Anyone familiar with Beecham’s hell-for-leather whiplash approach would have been disappointed, but Saraste’s control enabled orchestral detail to tell effectively and he was able to stir the orchestra into a rousing and animated coda. It was good to hear these Legends as a set - they are rarely programmed as such in London – and to be able to appreciate Sibelius’s burgeoning sense of architecture in these comparatively early works in what were, overall, persuasive performances. An encore – Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture – given a rumbustious reading, found the orchestra, the horn section in particular, revelling in the colourful turbulence of the writing.

 

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